East Bank Berbice farmer resilient in grape cultivation

By Malisa Playter-Harry

Kaieteur News – There has been buzz around an East Bank Berbice farmer recently over his success in cultivating grapes of various varieties.
Devon Gilead, a 41-year-old farmer, beekeeper, and slasher of 649 New Glasgow Housing Scheme is creating a stir in the agriculture industry and will soon be harvesting juicy and sweet grapes right from his backyard. His success in planting the exotic and succulent fruit has allowed him to be granted a plot of land stretching 7.5 acres to expand his cultivation.
Gilead said he had tried to cultivate grapes just over a year ago and it was a success. This gained widespread attention on social media and it eventually caught the attention of the Vice President, Bharrat Jagdeo who gave him a surprise call in early 2021 and expressed interest in what he had done to achieve it.

Some of the grapes being cultivated by Devon Gilead.

Gilead said the VP told him that he was proud that he could achieve grape cultivation in Guyana, “he felt nice and he told me that he knows people that planted the green grapes already but the red grapes he never thought it could actually grow in Guyana…he asked me which university I went to and I told him I didn’t go to any university I learn it off my own.”
Looking ahead and with the hope of expanding, Gilead decided to request a piece of land to drive his vision of having a vineyard where tourists can visit, taste his locally grown grapes, sip some locally made wine and take pictures. A year later, that land was granted to him.
“I had some doubt and so for me, it didn’t make sense to ask for the land and nothing ain’t producing, and then the government will look shame and all of that. I allowed it to grow and bear fruit and when it bear now, I went to the Minister of Agriculture Zulfikar Mustapha, and explained to him and he told me he knows me for a very long time and asked me if I am the man that plant the grapes and I said yes and he worked along with me.” Gilead said.
The plot of land identified and granted to Gilead was once owned by GuySuCo but is now controlled by NICIL. The land will be leased to him for a fee, but the farmer expressed that “the fee is not a problem” since he was happy that he got the plot of land to further expand.
“He sees the vision and he sees the vision I get because he always talking about it. I feel positive knowing I have the VP behind me because I know he is a man of his word, when he says something, he will do it. When he gave me the green light, it motivates me to invest because I know at the end of the day, I will get it,” Gilead said. Gilead has plans to open a vineyard on the plot of land he was granted. Mostly grown for making wines and preparing raisins, grape cultivation is believed to have originated near the Caspian Sea, however, it is also known to be cultivated since the Roman times.
How it started
The East Bank Berbice Farmer hasn’t always been doing farming, in fact, prior to his interest in growing exotic fruits, Gilead was a beekeeper and today he has also grown his beekeeping business to the extent that he retails honey and its bi-products. However, there was a keen interest in growing exotic fruits. He recalled when he was a child, coming from a poor home with three siblings, there was a neighbour who would visit overseas and bring an apple and some grapes for them.
He said his mom would slice the apple so that they could all get a piece and she did the same with the grapes. He also remembered that apple and grapes were not as widely available at the local markets as they are today and so as he got older, he was curious to understand if those same fruits can be grown in his motherland.
“I sit down and study this thing and I said why apple and grapes can’t grow in Guyana here. So I told myself this thing can grow, I went on the internet and do some research, but I see that apples and grapes don’t grow in the snow because you got to get cold climate but I realize when the place cools and the grapes get half-ripe it remains half-ripe because you got to get sunlight to get it to get ripe so it started playing through my mind and I said something wrong here,” he said.

Devon Gilead attending to his grape vines.

He began researching on the internet whether grapes grew in the African country of Kenya since the climate was like that of Guyana and it was then he discovered that apples and grapes were being cultivated in that country successfully. Gilead said he immediately invested in soil testing equipment after he read about the soil PH requirement and upon testing the soil in his yard, he realized that he could grow the fruits.
His first try was with strawberries, he ordered strawberry seeds from Amazon online and planted the seeds in buckets, paying keen attention to it by dedicating his time and energy to watering and nourishing the plants. In a matter of time, his plants began blooming and strawberries were visible. However, those plants died after someone unknowingly sprayed an empty plot of land nearby with weedicide and it blew over into his yard, killing all the strawberry plants in the process. That did not discourage him though, as Gilead decided to now try his hand at grape cultivation.
Determined despite discouragement
Gilead said that when he first floated the idea, there were many that tried to discourage him, and many did not assist in supporting his dream and vision, but he was as determined.
“I go and order some stems, grape cuttings and I said I gon try the grapes now, as it grows now, it had some staff from the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute(NAREI) under the previous government and they told me that apple and grapes can’t grow in Guyana because grapes need certain chilling hours and that It’s impossible that the tree gon bare so I didn’t take her word for granted, I said if it can grow in Kenya it got to grow right here,” he said confidently. Within three months, the grapevines were blossoming.
“I told my wife the tree blossom and she thought it was impossible because grapevine does take two years to start. She thought the tree was pre-mature and I told her to watch it and see and after the whole entire tree blossom if you see grapes.” He said he called the NAREI staff that doubted him and invited them over, when they arrived, he said even they were surprised and had asked if he bought the bunches of grapes from the market and tied it on the vines.
Gilead eventually began planting different varieties and he began to do increased research about the soil PH requirement, the environment in which it needed to grow, and how to keep the plants bearing the fruit. Adding that when the new government changed, there was new staff from NAREI assisting him with anything he needed to make it work. Though tedious and time-consuming, Gilead was determined to improve his craft and prove others wrong since he had received a lot of negative advice. He said he had to understand that plants needed a period of rest so that they could continue to produce.

“I learned about these techniques on my own, research not teaching you that, but you got to figure it out yourself. If something needs rest, if the cherry tree baring a cherry, continue all the time, the tree needs rest, what you must do is pick out all the cherries and cut out all the blossoms so the plant will just stop pushing out fruits and so on. I figured it out, the first set I planted inside the house, came out good, but this set came out excellent. I know the other set will come out perfect,” he said.
Gilead is currently cultivating the Vitus Labrusca (Concord) or ‘Fox Grape’, the Muscat table grape, and, Jupiter grapes which is a mix between the Concord and the Muscat, the Moon drop grapes and the Vanessa wine grapes. He is also trying to grow other fruits such as Dragon fruit, Kiwi, Gala apples, and sweet granadilla (relative to the passion fruit).
Gilead hopes to one day employ a lot of staff and eventually supply the entire country and export his grapes. He also wants to teach the younger generation who are in the agriculture field at school so that when they leave school, they can learn a skill. “I want to employ mostly single parents because I know a lot of women out of jobs, they can come for employment because I know women have more love for the plant than men, they have more patience,” he said.
He is also hoping to make products from his grape production while noting, that the grape leaf alone has a ton of benefits and can be used in cooking, making tea, and more. He said too, that the seeds of the grape can be used to make grapeseed oil and he will also be looking at making wine, jams, and juice.
The father of two has invested approximately $8,000,000 over the past few years in grape production and he currently has over 200 grape seedling plants. When it is time to harvest, he is hoping that many persons including the Vice President and the Agriculture Minister will get a taste.